Medicine From The Trenches

Experiences from undergradute, graduate school, medical school, residency and beyond.

Strategies for non-traditional success

Being Non-traditional

A non-traditional applicant  generally hasn’t taken the “traditional” route to medical school application (graduation from 4-year university with application in junior year). There is no particular “higher status” that applying to medical school as a non-traditional applicant will confer. In short, you are in competition with every applicant that applies to the schools that you apply to. The same criteria also applies to your undergraduate experiences and preparation for medical school. In general, many non-traditional applicants are older but this is not always the case. Sometimes an applicant is non-traditional because they didn’t attend primary or secondary school in this country but completed university here, worked a couple of years and then applied to medical school in their early 20’s. Certainly, this type of applicant is not traditional in any sense of the word but they would not be an “older” applicant as many nontraditional applicants would be.

While there is no age “limit” in terms of admission into medical school, certainly an older applicant needs to be sure that they are physically able to get through four demanding years of coursework and residency which is minimally three years. In today’s world, many folks who are in their 40s and 50s are in excellent physical condition and would have no problems with medical school, residency and practice. In my own case, I was over 40 when I applied to medical school and had no problems with school or practice.  I was heavily involved in middle-distance running  and tended to meet several older classmates on the running track. In short, the older students (a couple of service academy grads, a former olympic gymnast)  in my medical school tended to be in excellent physical condition. While many folks in their 20s and 30s would look at those folks who are in the 40s and 50s as “taking up a seat”, in general, the older applicants to medical school have no illusions that they need to be in good physical condition while the 20-somethings are often not as physically fit. If you are older, you should make physical conditioning a priority without question.

Keeping in good physical condition (at least 30-60 minutes of meaningful aerobic activity) can spell success in your academics. Physical activity is excellent for stress release and relief along with allowing one to foster discipline in life. It is the consistent and disciplined students who tend to perform best in medicine and in practice. Being able to work long hours (almost any specialty will demand this) will be much easier and better if you are in good shape. I can tell you that in residency, tennis, soccer and basketball along with running stairs became my means of keeping my head clear and my back strong. I played varsity tennis in college and continue to enjoy this activity well into practice. Having a physical activity or sport that can give you a good workout along with some social connections can be excellent. Even golf is good as long as you walk the course (I know the cart is fun but walk the course).  Twenty minutes of brisk walk on a treadmill a couple of times per day (listen to the audio summaries of your coursework) can be good for your physical condition and good for your head.

Turning disadvantage into an advantage.

Remove the thought that because you are a non-traditional applicant, medical schools are “hunting” for you. Medical schools do not have to hunt for any type of applicant or accept every type of applicant for diversity. This means that as a nontraditional applicant, you have to be just as competitive as a traditional applicant. Many times, many non-traditional applicants have had less than a great undergraduate record but taking a undistinguished undergraduate record into a competitive range is a very positive asset for a nontraditional applicant. Most admissions committees will look at recent coursework that is excellent and take into consideration that many students apply with a poor freshman year and turn things around for the next three years. While you won’t be applying with an undergraduate GPA (uGPA) of 4.0 (and you don’t need a 4.0) you will need to be above 3.5 to be considered minimally competitive and in the  3.6-3.7 range to be considered very competitive in addition to a strong score (31 or above) on the Medical College Admissions Test.

With those types of “numbers” out there, am I saying that you don’t have a chance? No, that is not the case but I am saying that you need to be realistic about your application when you are posting a uGPA or 3.5 along with a 28 MCAT and expect to be the nontraditional student at most allopathic medical schools. While the osteopathic schools do replace grades and make a good shot for the nontraditional applicant, you still have to do some uGPA “damage-control” if you have several grades of D in Organic Chemistry and have Cs in every pre-med requisite course. For any medical school, osteopathic or allopathic, the numbers are going to be more important and are going to be more important than the subject of the major that you have selected. In short, your application has to show recent can consistent scholarship in some manner. You have to get your academics in the best order that you can and optimize every part of the application along with excellent academics.

Many nontraditional students make the mistake of trying to take too many classes while working full-time. If you need to work full-time, your coursework need to be part-time. You are not going to get any “points” for a less than optimal performance (any grade below B+) in your coursework because you are working and taking a full load. Most allopathic medical schools are going to screen by uGPA which means that you need to make sure you meet and exceed the screen. When screening, most schools are not going to try to look at whether or not you are employed full-time. In short, drop back your courses (even if it take longer) until you can do excellent work in your courses. While you can’t allow your family (or yourself) to live outdoors while you are trying to take courses, you can cut back on the number of course hours that you take. If you are dependent on financial aid, take only the minimum of courses that keep your financial aid flowing. If you do well with the minimum, then add more but don’t overload and drop in the middle of the semester when you burn out on work and too much of an academic load.

You also need to take into account the demands of your courses. Taking three lab courses in one semester and trying to work full-time is not a sound strategy. When students (traditional or nontraditional) try to overload on coursework and work at the same time, it’s not the employment that suffers, it’s the academics. Again, it the performance that counts and not particularly the courseload because you are trying to “prove” that you can take many hours like a medical student. Additionally, your pre-med prerequisite courses need to be outstanding with the acquisition of a solid knowledge base for a good performance on the MCAT. For General Chemistry and General Physics, you need to have a very strong math background and thus, make sure you have good college-level algebra/trigonometry skills before you take those classes. If you need a math upgrade (or refresher),then take General Biology and math before you take General Chemistry and General Physics.

If you have a family, certainly there are things that you are going to have to take part in that your more traditional students will not have to deal with. You can become an expert with time-management and make time for the things that mean the most for you or you can resent the fact that you just have more demands. Balancing a family (does not mean that you inform the professor that your child has a play and you won’t be getting your assignment done that night) with excellent academics can be a huge positive when it comes to application to medical school. In short, make a schedule that allows you to get your studies done and take time for the people who you love. If you have a son or daughter’s play or a ballgame that you want to see, make that your recreation for the week and do your work with your recreation reward in mind.  Even better, schedule some physical activity with your child or spouse that will allow you to both spend time and get some benefit from the experience. Never, never use your family or job as an “excuse” for not getting your assignments done on time or doing poorly in a class or on a test. If you set a regular and consistent study schedule (without academic overload), you are likely to be more efficient rather than less efficient.

On the job

If you are working full-time, your job demands your attention when you are on the job. You can certainly bring a note card or two that you can work on when you are on your meal break but don’t expect your co-workers to “take up the slack” because you have a final exam coming up or because you are in school to become a doctor. First, your coworkers start to resent you and your work performance which makes the job more stressful for you. If you are on the job, you need to put in as much mental and physical energy as if you were not in school.  Again, cut back on the coursework if your job is very demanding and don’t count on breaks at work to be your study time as most people can’t get their homework done on the job. Pitch in and be a good coworker/employee while you are getting yourself prepared for medicine. These characteristics will serve you very well when you are both in medical school and in residency.

Studying and getting academics strong

If you have poor academics from an earlier attempt at university work, take your time and get As on your retakes. Taking Organic Chemistry three or four times with Cs is not going to get you into medical school. The retakes will be on your record and don’t bode well for an acceptance.  Before your start to prepare yourself for medical school (uGPA “damage control” or not), sit down with a counselor and take a good and objective look at your study skills and academic knowledge base. Do you need to upgrade your reading skills? Do you need to upgrade your math skills? Do you need preparation in critical thinking skills? In short, you need to have good communication (reading, written and spoken English), good critical thinking (math and logic) and a good academic base to show that you can get through a challenging medical curriculum. You can acquire these skills at any time but you need to get them. Take some time and put yourself in a good position to get the most for your tuition dollar.

As I stated above, there is no “hurry” to get into medical school. If you acquire strong academics, you can enter professional (medical, dental, law)  at any age. Take your time and get what you need. Medicine is a very long-term goal. It’s a bit like having 100 pounds of excess weight to lose. You are not going to be able to get that much weight off in two weeks even if you drink only water for that period of time. You are not going to turn a poor academic record around in one semester but you can start right this second to sit down and work out how you are going to achieve the excellence that you need. With any long-term goal, you can “tick off” the daily strides that you make toward it. Write down everything on everyday that you have done to get toward your goal even if it’s “studied and mastered all of the synthetic reactions for alcohols” .  Also, don’t forget to reward yourself for keeping on a straight path to your goals with excellent performance. Also, don’t forget to “forgive yourself” if you weren’t perfect in everything that you attempted. Being an obnoxious perfectionist will lead to burnout rather than excellence which is the real “key” to nontraditional sucess.


9 December, 2010 Posted by | age, medical school, medical school admission, stress reduction, study skills | 8 Comments

My medical school interview went “badly”.

You have just completed your interview day for medical school. You had such high hopes for the day and right now you feel as if you have been “kicked in the abdomen”. What can you do to “fix” the situation? You tried to “salvage” the encounter with the interviewer but nothing seemed to work, now what’s going to happen? All of that work that you did on your application comes down to a huge disappointment with the day. You keep running the session in your mind and you can’t make any sense of where things seemed to get off track. My first piece of advice is to stop replaying the interview in your mind.One thing that is generally true about the session is that you are far from an objective observer of the situation. You were a participant and your mind was on the questions that you were asked in addition to a “hearty dose” of nerves about the whole situation. In short, stop playing the situation. You are done and there is nothing for you to be ashamed of thus, you did your best. If you haven’t attended your first interview, here are  some possible scenarios and how to deal with them.

The apparantly disinterested interviewer or the interviewer who is in a hurry

You sit down in front of this individual who is shuffling the papers on the desk (likely your application or his/her evaluation score sheet). He/she never makes eye contact with you or even worse, he/she leans back in the chair, looks at you as if you just landed from another planet. They begin to “pepper you” with questions that you can’t seem to answer or they interrupt your answers. They keep looking at their watch as you start to answer a question or clarify your answer.

For you, take a deep breath and listen to each question carefully. If you interviewer tries to rush you, don’t be rushed. Think about your answer and speak clearly. In short, you “take” charge of the interview situation by slowing down instead of being pushed into delivering an answer that you didn’t intend to deliver. It’s your interview and most of the time,  the interviewer will to move to your pace, albeit with some resistance. This doesn’t mean that you count to 100 before you speak or count to ten between words but it means that you don’t rush your answer because the interviewer has rushed the question.  Sometimes interviewers will look for candidates who can keep control of themselves and the situation under these types of circumstances. Resist the urge to panic but do something to get your nerves under control.

Practice strategy: Take a deep breath quietly and make sure that you don’t take too long to answer questions. Tape yourself answering some routine questions such as “tell me why you want to be a doctor” or “tell me about yourself”. You can almost bet that you will get some version of these two questions so make sure that you have a clear answer to these. Look at yourself in a mirror dressed in your interview clothing. Do you look relaxed and confident? Make sure that this is the case.

The interviewer who asks “ethical” situation-type questions

Some candidates make the mistake of trying to “read the mind” of the interviewer and say what they believe the interviewer “wants” to hear. Give your opinion on whatever question is asked. If you don’t have an opinion, then don’t try to “fake” an opinion.  You can state, “I have actually never considered that situation but here’s a similiar situation that I have considered”; then go on to relate your experience or opinion about a situation. In most ethical questions, try to make sure that you are not taking a position that could wind up hurting another individual (or yourself).  Unfortunate things happen to good people but do not make the mistake of trying to read your interviewer or trying to give what you believe might be a “popular” opinion.  It’s also good to have some examples of how you formed your opinion too.

Practice strategies: Do some research into some current but controversial issues and form some well-researched and well-thought out opinions. Do some research and reading of points of view that are opposite yours and be ready to state these and why you disagree with them. Be able to calmly and objectively discuss a controversial subject such as abortion rights with respect for opinions that differ from yours. Healthcare reform is a popular topic that can be researched so that you have an opinion.

The interviewer that asks scientific questions

If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t try to “fake” it. If you have completed a scientific research project, you need to know every aspect of your research (including the things you didn’t work on) along with its implications. Most of the time, you are going to be interviewed by a basic science professor who is quite familiar with scientific literature and current biomedical research. Don’t get caught up in not knowing the most about any project that you have listed on your application. If you are asked a question that you can’t answer, then state your case honestly. Certainly, do not embellish your role in a project more than what you actually accomplished. If you only maintained a cell line, then know everything about that cell line and how it fit into the project overall.

Practice points: If there have been recent papers by members of your research group, know these papers well even if you didn’t work on the projects. Be sure that you can explain your role in any research project completely and in depth.

By all means, when your interview is over, keep the following in mind:

  • The worst case is that this interview provided you with valuable experience.
  • You are not objective enough to grade your interview. What you may experience as “bad” is likely your nerves getting the best of you.
  • Don’t rehearse and try to recount every word that came out of your mouth. Every person is more likely to remember 10 negatives for every 1 positive thing. In reality, the positives always outweigh the negatives but you won’t remember them.
  • Everyone is nervous. Unless you tripped over the waste bin and fell into the arms of your interviewer, your nerves didn’t “get the best of you”. 

Before any interview, practice in front of a mirror. Have a friend read questions to you and watch your expressions. You can even have a friend tape you answering questions such as “Tell me about yourself” or “why do you want to become a physician?” You should have some “stock” answers for these questions anyway. You can write out answers for these types of questions because they are often asked.

Needless to say, be polite to every person that you meet. You are “on” as long as you are on that campus. Ask questions of students and have one or two things to ask your interviewer but don’t make the mistake of bragging or belittling your fellow interviewees. This can backfire in more ways that you would believe. Many times, secretaries have be invited to give input into admission interview day behaviors of the candidates. Be sure that your behavior is outstanding and professional in every way. Words like “please” and “thank-you” can go a long way in distinguishing you from your peers.

6 December, 2010 Posted by | medical school, medical school admission, medical school interview | Leave a comment